The Righteous Branch

Text: Jeremiah 23:1-6
Date: Pentecost VIII (Proper 11) + 7/22/12

My neighbor once complained to me about his pastor and said that he was the reason why he didn’t go to church anymore. Lately, however, he told me about how great their new pastor is and now he goes nearly every Sunday.

So I’m sitting in the barber’s chair last Thursday and the barber strikes up a conversation about church. (He, by the way, cut my neighbor’s former pastor’s hair and had about the same opinion as my neighbor). In all the churches he’s attended his evaluation of each was based on how “dynamic” the pastor was.

I’ve known some “dynamic” pastors. One seemed to be knowledgeable, effective and “in charge”—until his wife told the congregation one Sunday how he beat and abused her. He’s no longer a Lutheran minister. Another was a knowledgeable and dynamic young man who was conservative, orthodox and confessional. When his wife left him he quit the ministry because he didn’t think a divorced man should serve as a pastor. Later I heard that he shot out her front door with a gun.

It’s taken me a long time—a long time of being impressed and even intimidated by either famous or dynamic, effective pastors and preachers—a long time to wake up to not being overly impressed or intimidated by anyone anymore. John the Baptist had it right when he said of Jesus Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
There have been and are faithful pastors and shepherds. And there are and have been troublesome shepherds and pastors. One of my favorite books about how some congregations “eat up” or destroy their pastors is entitled “Clergy Killers.” To be fair there are also the reverse, which we could call “Killer Clergy”! The latter is the concern addressed by the prophet Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading.

Today’s Gospel proclaims Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the Good Pastor. St. Mark says when Jesus saw the great crowd following him, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Sheep without a shepherd are lost and doomed. So Jesus taught them and fed them. He became their shepherd, their Good Shepherd.

This is important for my neighbor and my barber, for you and me to know. Jesus is the Good Shepherd meaning much more than merely being the example or model for pastors to follow and imitate. He is the Good Shepherd because, as God declared to Jeremiah, He is The Righteous Branch of Israel’s great king David.

When God announces in our text, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,” He was speaking not just of lousy pastors or false prophets or priests but of the last kings of Judah, the shepherds whom elsewhere He also calls “lords of the flock” (25:34ff.), the ungodly monarchs on the throne of David. The immediate example is King Jehoiakim described in the previous chapter as “he who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’” who has “eyes and heart only for dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (Jer 22:13-14, 17). Sadly these words also describe in various degrees certain notorious religious leaders of all ages. (Why do seemingly “successful” and “famous” religious leaders all live in mansions?) Through the prophet God declares a message of woe, condemning them, saying, “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” Then, using the same word, their own wickedness is turned against them as God says, “Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds,” meaning to attend to them in judgment and condemnation.

Without giving any details as to what their particular judgment or punishment will be, however, God tells them He is about to take matters into His own almighty hands. He says He has always been mysteriously behind even their unfaithfulness when He says, “I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them.” More than that He promises to set up new shepherds over His people, shepherds “who will care for them.”

This doesn’t mean that God was going to intervene for a while and then try again to set up new shepherds, kings, pastors or priests. God means to say that He Himself will be the shepherd of His sheep through representatives He calls, ordains and sends.

The mystery is that God’s shepherding, His leading and teaching and guiding and guarding, needs to be expressed to humans through human hands. The problem has always been that those human hands are still sinful hands, weak hands, hands tempted and troubled by unrighteousness. The one and only possible answer to this problem is for God Himself to come to us in our own human form with His hands. This human form he declares as “raising up for David a righteous Branch (tsemach tzadik) who shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This “righteous Branch” would not only be the physical descendant of the great king David but also David’s Lord (Ps 110:1),
the only-begotten Son of God…
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God…
being of one substance with the Father…
who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…
and was made man.

This “righteous Branch” is, of course, the incarnate Son of God born of the virgin Mary, Jesus of Nazareth. He is righteous not only in the rightness and quality of His rule but is, by His very divine nature, personally and actually righteous, sinless.

Through Jesus, the Good Shepherd, God then “sets shepherds over” his people. It began with the twelve apostles and then has extended to all those who follow in their train, fellow sinners but those called, ordained, set apart and sent of whom Jesus says, “The one who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16). We are to listen to their teaching as if it is the very voice of Christ. We are to receive baptism from their hands as the very hands of Christ. We are to receive the sacramental food of Christ’s own body and blood from their hands as the very hands of Christ. (The old Roman Catholic practice of anointing the hands of the newly ordained symbolizes this spiritual reality). When sin or weakness or failure overtakes them we are to forgive them and restore them, even as with every other sinner. We are to honor and respect them for the sake of the office they bear as servants—servants who insist that Christ must increase while they must decrease (John 3:30), servants who declare, “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).

God declared, “in his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.” “His days” culminated in His own offering of Himself as the sacrifice for the sin of the whole world, as the prophet Isaiah predicted, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Is 53:11). But “His days” include also our days as His holy death and resurrection through the Word and Sacraments of the Gospel account us righteous, that is, give us the forgiveness of our sins and new, eternal life. And He does this at the hands and through the shepherds of His own calling and sending. By their preaching, as the hymn says, “Thy strong Word bespeaks us righteous” (LSB 578:3), that is, accounts, declares and makes us righteous in God’s sight because of His own love and grace to us in His Son, Jesus.

In Jesus God Himself is our Shepherd. We shall not be in want. He restores us and leads us. In Him we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps 23).